Apple iPad full review

Unlike the iPhone, which Apple kept under such tight guard at its introduction that only a few special types got to touch it for a few minutes, there were iPads aplenty available immediately following the product’s introduction Wednesday. As a result, we were able to spend roughly half an hour with our eyes and fingers glued to the iPad. Here’s an eyewitness account of what we noticed.

The iPad does indeed feel like an oversized novelty iPhone. In fact, it’s a bit of a mix of the first-generation iPhone (aluminum back) and the 3G/3GS models (the back is gently curved, not flat). But it’s much bigger and squarer than the iPhone. In fact, the iPad’s 1,024-by-768-pixel display conforms to the 4:3 aspect ratio common on TV sets before they all became widescreen, flat-panelled HDTV marvels. This might seem like a step backward, since all of your favourite widescreen videos will play with black bars at the top and the bottom. But after holding the iPad, it sort of makes sense. A more elongated device, with a 16:9 aspect ratio, might not feel as well-balanced in the hand as the iPad feels.

Speaking of how the iPad feels in your hand: It’s comfortable. The iPad’s large bezel (i.e., the screenless border at the edge of the device) is there so that you can grip it without landing your thumbs all over its touch-sensitive screen. At 680g, it’s more than twice as heavy as Amazon’s Kindle 2, and it’s larger too (242.8 by 189.7mm). It remains to be seen if it’ll be comfortable to hold this device up with a hand as you’re commuting on the bus or train. But in our short time hefting it, it seemed surprisingly thin and light, given its size.

Despite Apple’s widely known dislike for physical buttons, the company still hasn’t figured out how to completely wipe them from existence. The iPad has the same buttons as the iPhone: an indented Home button directly below the screen, a Sleep/Wake button at the top, a silencer toggle switch, and a volume up/down rocker switch. Other than that, the outside of the device is pretty barren: there’s a headphone jack, a tiny internal microphone (located right next to the headphone jack), a speaker, and the same dock connector port that we’ve come to expect from every mobile device from Apple.

Now, a bit more about that screen. It’s based on tried-and-true LCD technology, backlit by an LED and using IPS display technology – in other words, it’s basically the same kind of screen that’s in the current iMac line. By using an LED backlight, Apple is able to make the iPad screen quite bright, and the IPS technology means that the screen has an extremely wide viewing angle.

Since the screen’s narrowest dimension is 768 pixels, you’d think that the iPad would be able to play back 720p high-definition video – and it can. However, it’s important to keep in mind that 720p video generally is 1,280 pixels wide by 720 pixels high. Such an image would actually be displayed on the iPad at 80 per cent size: 1,024 pixels wide (the width of the iPad display’s longest side) by 576 pixels high. Or, if you double-tapped to zoom in on the image, it would play at the HD resolution, but with the sides of the image cut off. (This is the dark side of Apple using a 4:3 display in an era of 16:9 video content – the screen just doesn’t fit the content.)

That all said, the video we played – clips of movies (Star Trek and Up) and TV Shows (30 Rock) – looked great. Big and beautiful, with vibrant colours and impressive viewing angles.

Tapping around

The iPads Apple showed off came pre-loaded with a bunch of apps. Not only were there new iPad versions of old favourites – Contacts, Music, Videos, Calendar, Safari, iPod – but there were also a bunch of current iPhone apps running in the iPad’s app compatibility mode.

To start using the iPad, you have to unlock it. And yes, there’s a “slide to unlock” screen just as on the iPhone and iPod touch. On the iPad, you don’t need to slide from one end of the larger screen to another – the slide area is right in the middle of the screen, but it’s only about 5cm wide. This screen looks more or less like the iPhone’s unlock screen, but there’s a new button located just to the right of the slide-to-unlock space. Tap this button and you’ll activate the iPad’s built-in slideshow mode. Clearly Apple has designed this feature in anticipation of the iPad being placed in a position of prominence in living rooms everywhere, because the slideshow turns the iPad into a dynamic digital photo frame. (And yes, the iPad is still locked while it’s displaying the slideshow – press the home button and the familiar slide-to-unlock interface will reappear.)

Once you unlock the iPad, you’ll find yourself at the home screen. It’s a lot like the iPhone’s, though it’s not plain black anymore – you can place a wallpaper image behind the app icons. At the bottom of the screen is space for six (versus four on the iPhone) of your favourite apps, sitting on a transparent glass tray just like the one you’ll find in Mac OS X Leopard and Snow Leopard.

We found the home screen a little bit weird, though. Despite the size of the iPad’s screen, you can only place four app icons on each row of the home screen (other than the Dock). The result is an incredibly spaced-out icon grid. And it’s somewhat disappointing that this new device, which generally seems to take great advantage of its large screen, doesn’t really do anything different when it comes to the home screen. It’s like a big, spaced-out version of the iPhone home screen (and somewhat reminiscent of the Nexus One and other Android-based devices).

Each of the iPhone apps Apple has revised for the iPad features more depth, graphical richness, and complexity than its predecessor. Take Safari, which on the iPad is an amalgam of the iPhone and Mac versions of Apple’s browser. Safari on the iPad loads pages extremely fast, and they look great. Double-tapping zooms in just as you’d get on an iPhone, and panning around with your finger is smooth. But up at the top of the screen is a single toolbar featuring forward and back buttons, access to bookmarks, and more. Tap on the Windows button, and the browser window is replaced with a screen showing a tiled view of nine pages. At various points you’ll discover the existence of a Bookmarks Toolbar, just as in the Mac version of Safari. And tapping on the Bookmarks icon doesn’t take you to a separate list of bookmarks as it does on the iPhone – instead, a floating bookmarks window appears right over where you tapped.

Mail, too, brings to mind aspects of both the iPhone and the Mac. When viewed in landscape orientation, the iPad Mail app is segmented into separate panes like Mail on the Mac: a list of messages on the left side, and a view of the currently-selected message on the right. In portrait mode, however, it looks very similar to the view you get when reading a single message in the iPhone’s Mail client – the Inbox listing is then relegated to a pop-up pane that appears when you tap the Inbox control in the top left. In both cases, the message-list view is the same familiar style we’ve become accustomed to on the iPhone.

While the iPad doesn’t have a built-in camera, it does have a slightly revised Photos application that lets you sort through stacks of your photos (based on albums or, if you’re syncing with iPhoto, Events, Places, and Faces). You can quickly peek at the contents of any of those stacks by using the pinch gesture, which spreads out the photos in the stack to let you glance at thumbnails of all of them. Release the pinch and those thumbnails quickly snap back into the pile.

Like the iPod touch, the iPad separates music and video playback into separate apps. The iPod app looks much more like the Mac version of iTunes than the iPhone version. There’s a controller at the top with play, next, and previous buttons, a slider to control where you are within the track, and a volume slider. On the left side there’s even a source list, letting you choose among music, podcasts, audiobooks, and playlists. On the right side, you can view tracks and select what you want to play.

The graphic richness of many of the iPad apps was striking. Both the Calendar and Contacts app feel like you’re peering into a physical object – a dayplanner and address book, respectively. And the extra screen space means that the Calendar is quite versatile, displaying two views at once or showing you the week at a glance. It’s much prettier than iCal, that’s for sure. Even Notes has gotten a bit of a spruce-up, with a faux leather border, extra marbled texture on the title bar, and an index card list of all your current notes.

We tried typing by using the iPad’s virtual keyboard in both the Mail and Notes apps. It’s hard to judge the experience after only a few minutes, but we have some reservations. Unless you’ve got large hands, you won’t be able to type by holding the iPad with two hands and tapping with your thumbs – the device is fairly wide. We weren’t able to test out the method Steve Jobs seems to prefer, which is to plop the thing in your lap and type on it that way. We were able to set the iPad on a table and type on it in widescreen mode, and managed to write a sentence that bore no resemblance to what we thought we were typing. But it takes time to adapt to any new input device – think back to how odd the iPhone’s on-screen keyboard felt when it debuted in 2007 – and it’s possible that with a little practice, typing on the iPad will be as easy or easier than typing on the iPhone. While the larger size of the keyboard seems promising, the layout is still slightly smaller than a MacBook’s full-size keyboard. It felt a bit cramped, like a keyboard that you might find on one of the netbooks Steve Jobs seems to dislike so much. But we have to reserve judgment until we spend more time with the device.

NEXT: Apple's iBooks app

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